A series of posts reflecting on my first Ramadan. Here’s why I decided to do it.
The overwhelming sensation I’ve had so far during this Ramadan fast is dryness of mouth, which is appropriate, since the word “Ramadan” comes from an Arabic word meaning “scorching heat” or “dryness.”
It doesn’t help that temperatures reached 106 degrees here either, but fortunately, I didn’t have to spend much time outside.
My imam friend, Yaseen, had mentioned that we clergy-types did have it easy in this regard: “We get to stay in our offices most of the day,” he had told me on Thursday. “Which makes me feel sorry for those Muslims who have to work outdoors.”
Or for Muslims who live on the margins of society, in whatever countries or lands they live in. To observe Ramadan is to accept an additional hardship on behalf of one’s religious commitment.
But that is what fasting is all about. It’s a self-imposed hardship.
A friend on Facebook commented on my first post that he didn’t understand the point of fasting: “Eat healthy and minimally and there you have a great diet and cleansing. I don’t understand why anyone would cease to eat altogether. If you feel hungry or thirsty, your body is telling you to eat and drink. I don’t understand why anyone would suggest denying your body what it needs.”
In one sense, my friend is exactly right. The body tells us when we need to eat and drink. The appetites are natural, healthy, and necessary. Why would one want to deny the obviously normal and healthy desires of the body?
The answer has to do with the realization that there is a deeper reality that lies beneath and within the biological basis of life. Human beings are not simply a bag of skin and bones, a composition of genes and chromosomes, a mass of fluids. We are not only or merely animals.
We are souls. We are spirits. We have the very image of God imprinted in us. In fact, that is what defines us, that is what gives us our identity and marks us as sacred beings.
And so the practice of fasting is a way of reconnecting with our dignity as created beings.
When I fast, I am making the statement – to myself and to the world around me – that I am more than my appetites, more than my desires and urges. I am spirit and I am soul; I am loved and forgiven by a God who cannot be seen, but whose reign of peace and justice is slowly and inevitably coming into being.
In a sense, it is truly a bold, revolutionary kind of statement, because it requires faith in things which cannot be seen.
As a Christian, I can also reflect on Jesus’ words: “I am the bread of life” and “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.”
Right now, it is the acute awareness of thirst that is making its mark on me. After all, I live in a context where potable water is always available to me. All I have to do is turn on a faucet, or press a button on a machine. In a normal day, I am rarely, if ever, truly thirsty.
Now I do.
Now I really do understand the appeal of not-being-thirsty-ever-again.
Now I can make the jump from the visceral feeling of dryness to the spiritual sensation of dryness. I can make the connection, and I crave, not only a Dr. Pepper Big Gulp, but a liberal dose of divine mercy.
Here’s another way to put it: sometimes I read the Psalms and they seem utterly foreign to me. Take Psalm 70, for example, which I read early this morning before sunrise. The Psalmist is crying to be rescued from his enemies. He complains, “I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God!”
These deliverance psalms always seem to come from a very distant time and place. I don’t have enemies who are out to kill me; I am hardly poor and needy; I am not desperately waiting for God to save me … from anything.
But this is the trap. As soon as I convince myself that all is well, and that I am self-sufficient, then I suddenly discover that … I really am poor and needy, I live and move and have my being thanks to the sheer mercy of God.
Times of fasting are a way to reconnect to this dependence on God. I am humbled again by my utter weakness as a human being, dependent on water and bread for biological survival. I see myself for who I really am – one human on a planet of several billion humans, each one equally valued and precious to God.
And I throw myself once again on God’s mercy, love and compassion.
If fasting accomplishes nothing else, it makes me thirsty. Thirsty for God.